I'll offer a perspective that is compatible with many Christian denominations, though I would not claim it is representative of what all Christians believe.
Respect for skepticism
I have some skeptical leanings myself, and I can respect a logically consistent intellectual caution. I can appreciate why people wish to have a high degree of certainty on matters of great consequence.
The form of skepticism I struggle to respect, however, is that in which skeptics apply a standard of scrutiny to others' views that they do not apply to their own. Unfortunately, I see this all too often, particularly in those who seek out opportunities to ridicule Christians. Below are a few examples of what I perceive to be problematic/inconsistent skepticism.
Like the classic sci-fi superweapon, skepticism wreaks havoc when turned upon itself. A few challenging questions which make even skeptics uncomfortable:
- What is the justification for believing that cause & effect are real?
- What is the justification for believing that the universe obeys laws? And that those laws are the same today as they were yesterday?
- Why is logical reasoning trustworthy?
These concepts (and others) must be assumed in order to do science in the first place. The way to handle these objections is to appeal to experiential evidence; however, this invalidates attempts to dismiss experiential evidence (we'll come back to that when we discuss testimonial accounts).
Sometimes it is asserted that we cannot be sure of anything. My response is to ask...are you sure?
Some will claim they don't believe anything is true. My response is to ask...do you believe that is true?
I'll offer two examples of self-destructive arguments:
One of the classic mistakes in skeptical thought is verificationism; a simple, jargon-free description of verificationist principles would be: "you shouldn't believe anything that can't be demonstrated by science" (see the link above for a much more in-depth discussion of the philosophy).
The trouble is this: the statement itself--the statement "you shouldn't believe anything that can't be demonstrated by science"--that statement cannot be demonstrated by science! So by its own admission, it shouldn't be believed.
Many skeptics accept that free will is probably real--but in recent years there's been a remarkable surge, especially online, in people who claim not to believe in free will (the implications that would carry for a hedonistic lifestyle is one possible explanation for the popularity of the idea (example)).
One of the most common arguments against free will is that atoms do not have free will, and people are made of atoms, therefore people have no free will. In section A of this post I show why that argument is self-refuting.
(this is, of course, an informal presentation of the argument--see the link above for the formal argument and formal refutation -- copy-pasting it here would make this post impractically long. The idea that natural materials only give rise to determinism or randomness is but a rewording of the the 3rd premise in the formal argument--a premise which is shown to be false. Those who wish to disagree are encouraged to present their own formal argument, though it may be more practical to do so on a separate question scoped to free will)
It is not uncommon for those of a skeptical bent to criticize Christians for having faith, when they themselves (the skeptics) exercise faith all the time. I offer some examples in this video on my channel.
Whether we're working with a scientific theory, a machine, other humans, a theological principal, etc. theists, agnostics, and atheists alike all regularly employ the idea that past behavior is a reasonably good predictor of future behavior. That is a form of faith, and that type of faith is essential for humans to be able to function.
We trust people because they were reliable in the past. We trust our perceptions (mostly) because they were reliable in the past. Many theists express trust in God for essentially the same reasons that scientists express trust in the scientific method (to be sure, I am not at all suggesting that theists & scientists are mutually exclusive categories). Faith is not belief without evidence. As I argued here, all belief is evidence-based, and faith is believing something strongly enough to act on it.
Begging the Question
Many academic disciplines implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) rule out the supernatural a priori. While there are circumstances where it is unhelpful to appeal to the supernatural, as a blanket rule it is both irrational & intellectually limiting to exclude it from consideration.
The problem is particularly apparent in Biblical studies. The Bible is a book that purports to be full of prophecy from beginning to end. In order to objectively evaluate a book about prophecy we cannot start out with the a priori assumption that all prophecy is real, or all prophecy is fake, because doing so restricts the possible solutions we can discover. We would only ever be able to find ideas that align with our worldview; anything outside that bubble would remain forever invisible to us. This is not science, this is dogma.
To make an a priori assumption on the very topic under evaluation is to arbitrarily select a solution without even evaluating the evidence. If we start with the premise that this book is a fraud, of course we’ll end up with a conclusion that this book is a fraud—it’s one of our premises! But that’s not an argument, it’s circular reasoning.
Methodological naturalism has been used many times to build theories which in turn are used to argue against the existence of God. This too is circular. It becomes particularly damaging to honest, intellectual inquiry when students are taught to believe something is true because the experts say so, without acknowledging that the experts' arguments require assuming naturalism at the outset.
Claims of Intellectual Superiority
Perhaps most frustrating to open-minded, inquisitive Christians, is the oft-repeated claim that the faithful are naïve for putting trust in things they cannot see; whereas the skeptical are wise for putting their trust in science and academia.
When this happens, the following are useful questions to ask:
- You say I should not believe in things I cannot see. Do you believe in protons?
- You say you believe in the Big Bang. Can you explain the math behind the theory?
It turns out we all rely on expert opinion for many of the things we believe; however, sometimes, we put our trust in different experts. As more and more university faculty express alarm that universities are becoming politicized, and open exchange of ideas is frowned upon or downright punished, public confidence in the impartiality of academia wanes.
Some universities have learned the same game mastered by the guilds centuries ago: if you can control who gets in and who gets recognized, you can ensure that your ideas are perpetuated without competition forever. This may be politically desirable, but it is not remotely scientific.
The claim that some very high % of professors in a given area support X view is not persuasive evidence that X is correct, if bowing before X view was an unofficial prerequisite to becoming a professor (e.g. rejecting intelligent design in order to secure employment as a biologist).
(Note that this game is sometimes played without explicitly censoring anything, but through funding. If I fund the studies favorable to my views and do not fund the others, the data--the almighty data--will naturally favor my views as well)
To be sure, I do see great value in putting confidence in what has been discovered by those who study rocks. I just see much, much more reason to put confidence in Him who made the rocks.
In summary, I do not take serious issue with intellectually honest skepticism. That is, serious, rigorous inquiry that:
- Does not rely on self-destructive arguments
- Does not beg the question
- Acknowledges its dependence on faith in some form
- Does not engage in hypocrisy or double standards
Regrettably, my experience with most contemporary skeptics movements is that these principals are regularly violated.
All evidence of any form rests upon a foundation of experiential evidence. Whether that evidence came from an equation, a machine, or human senses, take it back a few steps and you’ll end up with a human mind. A human mind developed the mathematical axioms and the machine, and a human mind interpreted information presented by the senses.
We cannot get around experiential evidence. Those who suggest it be excluded from consideration discard their own worldviews along with those of their opponents. Even the claim that something should be trusted because it is reliable is an appeal to experiential evidence.
As discussed above, we necessarily rely on experiential evidence in scientific inquiry. If scientific inquiry and religious belief both rely on experiential evidence, then reliance on experiential evidence is a not a valid basis for critique by one viewpoint against the other.
Particularly when it comes to historical claims, testimonial evidence (people's claims about their experiential evidence in the past) is essential. Countless historical events whose authenticity is undisputed are unrepeatable events.
We can not (or at the very least, should not) repeat the exact specifics of the Titanic disaster--it is a unique event in history. Although the event cannot be repeatedly tested, there is mountains of evidence to support the basic claims of the eyewitnesses about what happened. And even though eyewitnesses conflicted with each other in their testimony, their claims enable us to accurately piece together some minimal facts.
- The Titanic struck an iceberg. No serious Titanic historian disputes this
- We cannot repeat that unique event on April 14, 1912
- We cannot examine the iceberg-inflicted damage on the wreck (that part of the ship is permanently embedded in the sea floor).
The sinking of the most impressive floating engineering feat humans had ever constructed (to that time) by a chunk of frozen water is an extraordinary claim!! And yet the only iron-clad reason we have to believe it is eyewitness testimony. That theists, agnostics, and atheists accept the epistemological value of this testimony has a chilling effect on the assertion that testimonial evidence is inadequate for extraordinary claims. You might say it sinks the idea entirely.
Eyewitness testimony passes muster all the time in the study of history; that a claim relies solely on eyewitness testimony is not--by itself--a rational basis for rejecting the claim.
The death of Julius Caesar is a non-repeatable event; we know about it from eyewitness testimony and no serious historian doubts that he was stabbed to death on the Ides of March. The death & resurrection of Jesus is a non-repeatable event; we know about it from eyewitness testimony.
(For a deeper dive on the claim that we know about Jesus' death & resurrection from eyewitness testimony, see my video series Who When & Why - the Writing of the Gospels which establishes this from the standpoint of a historian, not a theologian)
That testimonial evidence is acceptable except in supernatural cases is cherry-picking. Since "supernatural" refers to events that are not explained by our understanding & experience with the way events naturally occur, this means that in order for one to blanket reject testimony of the supernatural it is necessary to assert:
- Testimonial evidence is permissible if it aligns with my experience with the way the world works
- Testimonial evidence is not permissible if it does not align with my experience with the way the world works
This is the same attitude that resulted in the punishment of Galileo. It is neither rational, nor scientific. We could just as well say that we're fine with testimonial evidence as long as it doesn't tell us something we don't want to hear.
I can respect logically consistent skeptical inquiry; I regret that this form of skepticism is something I have only occasionally seen.
Testimonial evidence is used by everyone--including skeptics--all the time. Nothing I have said should be construed to mean that we should accept everything we hear on the basis of testimonial evidence--far from it--we should scrutinize this form of evidence as we would any other.
Christians regularly appeal to testimonial evidence to validate the claim that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, and there is substantial historical evidence supporting this claim.
However, as discussed further here, the most widespread and enduring reason given for trusting the apostles is the first-hand, repeatable evidence of the ratification of their words by the Holy Spirit.
Appendix--response to questions
What if we live in a deterministic universe? Fortunately, we don't need to answer this one, because we do not live in a deterministic universe. (For those unfamiliar with the implications of the uncertainty principle, this video by Michio Kaku offers a useful into)
Does my position on testimonial evidence require accepting claims of alien abductions, bigfoot sightings, etc.? No. I have merely argued that we cannot reject testimonial evidence simply because it is testimonial evidence. As with any evidence, we must still evaluate the quality of the evidence.
Neither a Christian, nor anyone else, need adopt a different epistemological standard when evaluating conspiracy theories. In many (most?) cases conspiracy theories exist to fill the void created by uncertainty. We could acknowledge that uncertainty exists on the topic of bigfoot sightings and still arrive at any of these conclusions:
- the evidence provides persuasive reason to believe bigfoot exists ("bigfoot-ism")
- the evidence provides persuasive reason to believe bigfoot does not exist ("a-bigfoot-ism")
- the evidence does not provide persuasive reason to adopt one conclusion or the other ("bigfoot agnosticism")
- I don't care ("bigfoot apathy")
A priori acceptance of all experiential evidence would of course be untenable. But a priori rejection of all experiential evidence because experiential evidence is unreliable would be self refuting:
- Measurement of its reliability relies upon experiential evidence
- This would mean rejecting all evidence of any form, since all forms of evidence with which we interact can ultimately be traced back to experiential evidence
Those acknowledging that some testimonial evidence may be reliable have already conceded the very modest point I am making here: we cannot rationally reject testimonial evidence because it is testimonial evidence; a claim must be evaluated on its own merits.
(An in-depth evaluation of specific claims would be well beyond the scope of this question)
Inconsistent skeptics may claim that experiential evidence is consistently unreliable. I offer a consistent position in suggesting the possibility that experiential evidence is inconsistently unreliable.
Rather than blindly believing in the unreliability of experiential evidence, we should put specific claims to the test. Does that make me more skeptical than the skeptics? I don't know, but I'm skeptical of the skeptics' skepticism.